Jesus Himself has clarified what He is up to, or not, in building His church.
Almost everything the Church of God stands for seems compromised from the beginning. And yet, knowing all that is to come, Jesus establishes His church.
The Church’s Beginning
At Caesarea Philippi in the summer of A.D. 30, Jesus promised: “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against” His church (Matt. 16:18). He said this to 12 men whom He had called out of a group of “those He Himself wanted.” Out of that group He picked 12 to “be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” (Mark 3:14, 15). It was His first step “in the organization of the church that after Christ’s departure was to be His representative on earth.”1 And it is the confession of one of those wanted, called and appointed men, that brought forth Christ’s awe-inspiring response that His church is unstoppable.
Responding to Jesus’ public polling question, His disciples give Him a good list: people think He might be John or Elijah or Jeremiah, prophets all; the bad list [glutton, winebibber, friend of society’s scum (Matt. 11:19; Luke 15:1)] does not come up.
Then Jesus asks what they themselves think. And Peter is ready: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). His confession is “the foundation of [every] believer’s faith.”2
The Church Misunderstood
To the dismay of all, Peter’s spiritual insightfulness only lasts for moments. Soon enough he is contradicting Jesus when the Master speaks of His coming sufferings (Matt. 16:21). Peter feels compelled to help Jesus. Discreetly. He takes Jesus aside to rebuke Him for speaking such nonsense: “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” (verse 22).
Peter speak for Satan so directly that in responding Jesus rebukes Satan himself: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (verse 23).
Despite Peter’s earlier confession, his rebuke of Jesus reflects the same pathetic limitations that sound in the disciples’ answer to Jesus’ first question on public views about Him. Labeling someone a prophet affirms them spiritually. And Peter wants the best for Jesus as a political champion. Nevertheless, the answers of Peter and friends are both pathetic failures of spiritual comprehension, even if they come from the lips of people Jesus wanted, called, and chose to lead His church on earth.
The Church’s End
“End” here is synonymous with “goal” and “purpose”. God’s church may be composed of humans, but its purpose and destiny are not humanly circumscribed. Amazingly enough, though, when God crashes hell’s gates to rescue His children from Satan, He uses many flawed humans who seem to be such an embarrassment to His purposes. Thankfully, for the sake of all from Peter’s day to now, Jesus Himself has clarified what He is up to, or not, in building His church.
Separation: He is building distinctiveness, but without conceit or exploitative discrimination. The Greek word for “church” requires “separation”: the crazy crowd in an Ephesian theater shouting for two hours, not knowing “why they had come together” (Acts 19:32), is identified with the same word, ekklesia, that labels the body of Christ, recipient of all His spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:28). Whether from their homes, from the city streets or from unity in thought and action with the rest of society, both these groups have come out. Consistently, over against other metaphors such as salt that must mix, God’s church hears the metaphor of the loud angel voice insisting “Come out” (Rev. 18:1-4), out of darkness into the marvelous light of saving Truth (1 Pet. 2:9; John 8:32; 14:6). Over against a mother’s ambition for her sons (Matt. 20:20, 21), over against their friend’s temporal focus, there is the focus on holiness, on piety, the goal set by Him who is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (Heb. 7:26); because contrary to our logic, there can be no continuity between His moral illumination and the darkness that facilitates evil; no intimacies of fellowship between righteousness and unrighteousness (2 Cor. 6:14, 15). Instead, Christ’s church is utterly distinct from the world around it, “chosen,” “royal,” “holy,” “special” (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. Ex. 19:6).
Salvation: He is building for salvation, not for political fame: His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). Grace that offers everyone salvation (Titus 2:11) will soon give way to overwhelming glory (Rev. 1:7). Meanwhile, the church is God’s agency, broadcasting the good news of His current and coming kingdoms (Matt. 28:18-20). Over against the sad account of His wanted, called and chosen cowardly abandoning Him in Gethsemane, there is the miracle of millions from all points coming to “sit down [together] in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). Over against the shameful scattering of crucifixion’s eve, Jesus saw down through the ages, the growing gathering of family (Eph. 1:5), people who will now belong to Him and to each other forever.
Eternity: He is building for eternity: His kingdom “shall not be left to other people; it shall . . . . stand forever” (Dan. 2:44). Construction began with calling twelve apostles (Luke 6:13). It advances by the Spirit’s leading (Rom. 8:14). Its progress confounds every strategy designed by the elders assembled at the gates of hell taking counsel together wherever it be that their leader the devil lays territorial claims. One stronger than he is ever violating his claims and counsel as “he comes upon him and overcomes him,” constantly setting sin’s captives free (Luke 11:22; John 8: 36).
Reliability: Jesus’ testimony to the twelve is that He is building His church on the immoveable rock of His unchanging Self. Over against abandonment and denial by one of His own, He has established His church on His own integrity. As Paul testifies, nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus (see Rom. 8:35-39). Nothing intimidates Him. Our unchanging Lord will always be by our side to care for us (Mal. 3:6).
Nothing will prevail against Christ’s church, because though composed of enfeebled and defective human beings, it is more than a human institution. Its credibility, durability and universality are His own, divine. We may be sure that it will stand forever.
Lael Caesar, associate editor at Adventist World, feels secure in the fact that God’s church is divine.
1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1898), p. 291.
2 Ibid., p. 412.